Connecticut officials on Thursday unveiled plans to have students in grades K-12 return to their classrooms this fall, but with safety measures that range from mandatory face masks for students and teachers to the recommended “cohorting” of students with one teacher to reduce the potential spread of the coronavirus.
Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont said Connecticut currently appears on track for a safe reopening of schools in late August and early September, considering the state has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S.
“My number one principal metric was the public health lens,“ he said. “Just like we said about reopening our businesses, nothing makes any sense unless people feel like they’re safe and they are safe.”
Students in Connecticut have been out of the classroom for months. Lamont initially signed an executive order, effective March 17, that directed all in-person classes at all K-12 schools in the state be canceled. That thrust students and educators into a new world of online learning for the rest of the school year.
Lamont and State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona stressed how Thursday's announcement was just the first step to reopening, noting plans could change if there's a resurgence of COVID-19 infections in Connecticut. Cardona said school districts should prepare for full reopenings as well as “hybrid” models with fewer students and more online learning, in the event of future community spread of the coronavirus.
Local school officials will also have to consider options for parents who may not feel comfortable sending their children back to school in the fall.
Districts have about a month to review the state's plans, the details of which will be released Monday. They will need to determine how the recommendations fit with individual school buildings and where there's available extra space for social distancing measures. Districts will then present the state with their estimated costs to make the necessary changes. Cardona said he expects many schools will reconfigure existing space, such as gymnasiums and auditoriums, into classrooms so students can sit further apart from one another.
Besides the required wearing of masks, social distancing, frequent hand-washing and enhanced cleaning, the plan strongly encourages districts to group together students in K-8 and, when feasible, students in grades 9-12. Lamont said that was a key recommendation from his reopening task force.
“They wanted that 5th grade class to stay as a group ... so they didn't have to walk around the hallways, go to other classrooms,” Lamont said. “So if there was, god forbid, an infection, you know who those 25 kids and that teacher is, and that's more self-contained.”
On Thursday, Lamont's administration said there have been nearly 46,000 positive cases of COVID-19 and 4,289 COVID-associated deaths, an increase of 11 since Wednesday. The number of hospitalizations declined to 122.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or lead to death.
In other coronavirus news in Connecticut:
VOLUNTEER PROGRAM LAUNCHED
A new statewide program, known as ConnectiCorps, is being launched on Aug. 1 to help match nonprofit agencies who've struggled during the coronavirus pandemic with an influx of young volunteers.
The initiative will involve 80 members of AmeriCorps, the federal national service program, who will provide about 90,000 hours of volunteer help to 10 nonprofit agencies. Recruiting is currently underway. No state money is involved in the $800,000 program. Rather, it will be funded with $450,000 from the federal government and $200,000 from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. The remaining $150,000 will come from other charitable sources.
“I'm excited because many of those members are probably college graduates who were wondering, ‘Now what will I do? What my plans were supposed to be were changed quite a bit because of COVID,’" said Jacqueline Johnson, Executive Director of Serve Connecticut, which helps to oversee AmeriCorps projects in the state. The volunteers receive both a small stipend and up to $6,000 to help pay for college tuition or college loans.
Lamont noted that many people who volunteer, such as at Foodshare in Bloomfield where Thursday's announcement was made, tend to be older and have been cutting back on their hours to reduce potential exposure to COVID-19.
“We've got some young people who need the work, who have the heart to get this going,” Lamont said. “We have the real need here.”